Iran satellite launch fails

What happened: Iran yesterday failed to launch a satellite into space, Iranian state television said. The launch attempt took place at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport, around 145 miles south-east of Tehran. The Zafar 1 communications satellite failed to enter the earth’s orbit because of the low speed of the missile, the TV report said.

  • A spokesman said initially that the satellite was “successfully” launched and went “90 per cent of the way”, reaching an altitude of 540km. Defence Ministry space programme spokesman Ahmad Hosseini said: “Stage-1 and stage-2 motors of the carrier functioned properly and the satellite was successfully detached from its carrier, but at the end of its path it did not reach the required speed for being put in the orbit.”
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a Likud election event said: “We were notified today that Iran failed in launching a satellite. Alright. I’ll tell you what else they’re failing at: in transferring weapons to Syria and Lebanon, because we are operating there all the time, including at this time.”
  • Iran on Sunday also unveiled a new short-range ballistic missile and its “new generation” of engines designed to put satellites into space. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ website said the Raad-500 missile was equipped with new Zoheir engines made of composite materials that make them lighter than previous steel models.
  • Unveiling the new missile and engine, IRGC commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami described them as “complicated achievements on the bleeding edge of global technology”. However, media reports speculate that the Raad missile is a development of an older model, the Fateh-110, a ballistic ground-to-ground missile unveiled in 2002, with the main change being that the range has increased from 100km to 300km.

Context: Sunday’s failed test was Iran’s sixth space launch since UN Security Council resolution 2231 endorsed the JCPOA in July 2015.

  • UNSC Resolution 2231 calls on Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology before 2023.
  • Different interpretations of the missiles provisions in 2231 have created disagreements between the signatories over the legality of these launches. The US believes that long-range ballistic missile technology used to put satellites into orbit could also be used to launch nuclear warheads. Tehran denies pursuing the development of nuclear weapons.
  • In November 2019, the UK, France and Germany said that previous Iranian missile launches in April and July tested a new Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile variant equipped with a manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle: “Designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” and constitutes an activity inconsistent with UNSCR 2231.
  • Iran failed twice last year to launch the Payam and Doosti satellites, as well as experiencing a launchpad rocket explosion in August. A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in February 2019 also killed three researchers, according to authorities at the time.

Looking ahead: Iran was likely to stage its military and space achievements in February to mark the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. By attempting to launch a satellite into space, Iran was hoping to send a message to the US that its “maximum pressure” campaign was not working, but the failure of the launch is an embarrassing setback. Nevertheless, Iran is reportedly eager to continue with its space programme as it hopes to construct five more satellites by March 2021.

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